Accessibility links

Breaking News

Russians Mull Movie Ban On British Farce 'Death Of Stalin'

A still from The Death of Stalin, a film by the British director Armando Iannucci

MOSCOW -- The Russian Culture Ministry has warned it may ban a British satirical film about Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s death amid an outcry from Communist Party lawmakers who call it the latest example of Western "psychological warfare."

Adapted from a French graphic novel and directed by Scottish-born Armando Iannucci, The Death of Stalin mocks the jockeying for power and chaotic political infighting that followed the dictator's death in 1953. It is due to hit world cinemas on October 20.

An official within Russia's Culture Ministry, Pavel Pozhigailo, has called it a "planned provocation" and said his ministry has ordered an advance copy of the film to decide whether to ban it.

Pozhigailo told Govorit Moskva radio that the release of the film in Russia could provoke communists into acts of violent protest.

He compared it to the controversial film Matilda, which was based on an early love affair of Russia's last tsar, Nicholas II. That film, by Russian director Aleksei Uchitel, has angered radical Russian Orthodox believers who consider Nicholas II a saint, prompting threats of arson and violence if it makes it to the big screen.

"The same thing happening with Matilda will happen in communist ranks,” Pozhigailo warned.

Well-Received By Critics

The Death Of Stalin gets high scores from critics and audiences on the Rotten Tomatoes website. A review quoted on the same site says of the film: "Its application of [Iannucci's] signature barbed comic voice to such grim history (executions are a constant source of gallows humor) packs its own punch."

It stars Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev, who emerged victorious from the power struggle and famously spoke out against Stalin's purges in 1956 at the Soviet Communist leadership's watershed 20th Party Congress. Former Monty Python trouper Michael Palin plays Vyacheslav Molotov, the former Soviet foreign minister best known in the West for his infamous pre-World War II pact with his Nazi counterpart, Joachim von Ribbentrop. Rupert Friend plays Stalin’s son, Vasily, who was arrested two months after his father's death; Simon Beel stars as Lavrenty Beria, the notorious secret-police chief who was executed shortly after the dictator's demise.

WATCH: Official Trailer For The Death Of Stalin

The movie rights have been bought in Russia, but no release date has been set.

Asked whether it would be banned, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Tass on September 18 that he didn't know anything about the film, but added, "The Culture Ministry always behaves extremely responsibly to issuing distribution licenses."

Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky, meanwhile, told state news agency RIA Novosti that he was unaware of the film but that his ministry would apply its standard procedures to any eventual decision.

Ruthless System Of Government

Stalin presided over a ruthless system of political persecution, forced collectivization, and the death of millions of Soviet citizens in a man-made famine. He is reviled in much of the former Soviet Union and in the West.

But he is seen by many in Russia as the steely hand who led the defeat of the Nazis in what is known to Russians as the Great Patriotic War -- a victory that remains central to many Russians' view of their country as a great world power and is feted with huge military parades every year.

Critics say Russian officials have made significant efforts to rehabilitate Stalin's image over the past two decades, and polls show Russians' antipathy to Stalin has decreased under President Vladimir Putin.

In June, Russians chose Stalin (above Putin and poet Alexander Pushkin) as the "most outstanding" figure in world history, according to independent pollster Levada.

'Definitely Russophobic'

A pro-Kremlin news site, Vzglyad, said in an editorial that while the Stalin farce was probably not designed to be offensive to Russians, it is "definitely Russophobic" and should be dealt with appropriately.

"Should we show The Death of Stalin in our cinemas? Of course not -- because it is savage mockery from folks who don’t know and don’t understand our history," Vzglyad said, adding, "Our own history has become a source of parody, rather than a fount of lessons and a place for finding meaning."

The staunchest criticism came from the Communists (KPRF), Russia's second-largest political party.

Communist Party official Sergei Obukhov told RIA Novosti that the film is the "latest form of psychological warfare against our country" as it "discredits the leaders of our country, and even more, the supreme commander in the years of the Great Patriotic War – and belittles Russia’s role in world affairs."

"Any normal, decent person relates badly to such vileness," Aleksandr Yushchenko, a Communist Party spokesman, told Govorit Moskva after the trailer was released in August. He called for a ban, saying green-lighting its screening would split Russian society.

"Today, support for both Stalin and Lenin is growing, among the youth in the first instance. Russophobia-lovers, who also exist here [in Russia] and who give distribution licenses to such films, are simply creating another schism and throwing an ax into society, trying to provoke a certain dissatisfaction."